By Mike Menard
It was cold. Snow hid the muck of the dirt roads as a small committee of dreamers plodded south in horse-drawn sleighs, burdened with a sense of urgency. They were in search of land for a new college. Having just arrived in Lincoln, Neb., by train, they boarded the sleighs and headed out into the country toward a promising plot.
January hardly seemed the ideal month to assess a plot of land in Nebraska, especially in 1890. And yet, proponents of a “western school” had managed a huge victory in persuading the church to start another school in the Midwest, along with Battle Creek College in Michigan.
Initially, church leaders opposed the idea. Professor William W. Prescott, one of the leading educators in the early church, feared there weren’t enough quality teachers to support another school. Even Ellen White, usually an enthusiastic supporter of educational expansion, worried a bit about the church’s financial resources being spread too thin between two schools. She argued initially for “one well-equipped and properly managed” school instead.
But it wasn’t until Professor Prescott at last caught fire of the western school idea, arguing that Battle Creek College could not accommodate everyone who wanted an Adventist education, that the idea of a Midwest school began to get the support necessary to actually take shape. Once he threw his weight behind what some were calling the “Kansas Plan,” the nearby conferences—Iowa and Minnesota—agreed to begin searching for a spot.
Iowa Conference in particular seemed enthusiastic, as it wanted the school to land in their state.
The urgency of that sleigh-riding committee lay in its fear that interest in a second school might wane. The initial mandate from church leaders to start another school seemed halfhearted at best. They needed to move fast.
Few remember today that Union College almost took root in Des Moines, Iowa. Des Moines—and its realtors—made a passionate plea to the young church, offering a developing region far superior to other Western states. However, another resourceful band of realtors from Lincoln discovered choice land located outside of the city, and not far from the railroad.
The Lincoln plot of land sat on a hill, the highest point in the surrounding area. At the top of the hill, the committee could look in all directions for miles. There were almost no trees, except for a few small locust trees and cottonwoods.
Elder L.A. Hoopes, chair of the committee, instantly fell in love with the spot. He was so excited, he announced with the heel of his boot the precise location of the College Building—with almost prophetic accuracy.
Though the property sat outside of Lincoln, the Daily Nebraska State Journal all but guaranteed the committee would adore the spot. Its editors, pleading with the committee to at least visit the site, said if they didn’t like it, they could “carry away the dome of the state house” as an ornament.
The committee loved the spot, and the capitol dome remains.
The final vote among the eight voting members of the committee went for Lincoln over Des Moines—5 to 2, with one vote abstaining. As a side note, the Iowa Conference took the news disappointingly. It had, after all, worked hard for the school to be established in its state and paid out a whopping $1,314.86 for the selection process, only to have the school land in its neighboring state Nebraska.
What Lincoln locals foresaw—perhaps better than the Adventists themselves—is the boon a new college would be for everyone in the region. Indeed, they couldn’t imagine the impact.
The Entrepreneurial Peanut
With the creation of the Nebraska Sanitarium on Union College’s campus in 1895, Lincoln’s Adventists had better access to the health foods John Harvey Kellogg and other Adventist doctors were promoting at the time, including granola, lentils, imitation meat products and peanut butter. From letters sent by early students, we know these products were not uniformly appreciated in the dining hall, but peanuts—a novelty outside of the South—left a lasting impression.
David Weiss, one of those early students, created a peanut wholesale shop in College View around the turn of the century. Freighting peanuts from the South via train, Weiss supplied the legumes roasted, raw or made into peanut butter not only to Lincoln, but throughout Nebraska.
The peanut health craze not only fed the campus, it employed it, tapping into an entrepreneurial spirit. Often on Sunday afternoons, Lincoln locals would ride into the College View railroad station, take the trolley up 48th, and picnic on the hill. The campus was beautiful, like a park, with the grounds kept up by students. As families picnicked, resourceful young boys sold bags of peanuts.
The business venture spread. By 1900 at the nearby Lincoln baseball park, only a trolley ride away, boys could be heard shouting “Candy to eat! Gum to chew! And roasted peanuts from College View!” as they walked the grandstands.
About the only peanuts left today on Peanut Hill are those sold in either the Campus Store or Union Market. It seems fitting the men’s residence hall sits atop the peak of Peanut Hill. Importantly, the enterprising legacy of the little legume survives to this day.
The view from College View
It’s a curious thing that no one seems to know when or where the name Union College came about. No minutes survive of a vote or even of a discussion on the topic. Dr. Everett Dick, longtime school historian, believed the name came about organically during the search process, and that none thought to question it at the founding.
The first official statement of the name came from Professor Prescott, who would serve as the school’s first president. He matter-of-factly announced the name to residents of Lincoln at a meeting of local realtors called the Real Estate Exchange. But it was at this same meeting that Prescott first announced the college’s more intentional plan to call the small village around it College View. He assured the locals that the new college would not be isolated, but would be a friendly partner in the local economy. Many of the new shops in the small main street called Prescott Avenue were started by those associated with the college.
Prescott’s promise to the locals has certainly proven true in the school’s 125-year history. Union has never isolated itself, but has been an active member of the community.
As the college grew, so too, did College View. For nearly four decades, the little town operated with its own elected mayor and town council—all Adventists and associated with the college. The residents were mostly connected to the school in some way. The growing little town’s trickiest issue, however, was always access to water. Many residents of the time recall water shortages and rationing, in spite of the large water tower. That is, until the City of Lincoln annexed the town in 1929, and subsequently tore down College View’s water tower, building a pipeline to fresh water.
Some believe the timing of annexation was God-sent, as College View’s water pipeline was completed in time for the coming Depression.
A worthy investment
In the earliest days of locating land for the new college, some landowners hiked prices as high as $126 a plot—an outrageous sum. If the prospect of a new school had been kept more secret, the going rate of land was about $65 a plot.
However, some local farmers, businessmen, and town folk generously sold land for less than the going rate around what would become the new college. Some even gave land away. This was, by no means, entirely altruistic. Farmers and businesspeople recognized the potential economic windfall from a thriving college. Incoming students meant consumers of crops, as well as prospective customers and employees. Students would become teachers, shopkeepers, tradesmen and builders. Locals saw the gifts as an investment. What’s more, educated students might be enticed to stay, raise families, and contribute to the culture of the area.
This is an investment that has proven itself valuable a thousand times over to this day. Each year, according to a 2006 Creighton University study, Union College contributes approximately $40 million to the state economy—a number that has, no doubt, risen. Perhaps even more significant, Union brings brain power to the state. The vast majority of students (more than 81 percent) come from out-of-state—or country—and yet an extraordinarily high percentage remain in the state to raise families and work.
A friend to Lincoln and beyond
Today, though Union College is small when compared to large corporations and universities in and around Lincoln, it’s almost impossible to imagine the city without it. Lincoln grew up fast, and Union contributed to that. It still does.
But what started on a little hill of peanuts is not only vital to students, but a blessing to the city and the state it calls home. C
Special thanks to the Union College Heritage Room. Much of this history comes from Everett Dick’s unpublished lecture notes, his wonderful book Union: College of the Golden Cords, J. Sterling Morton’s out-of-print History of Nebraska from 1918, and unpublished interviews from alumni.
Mike Mennard is a musician, writer and adjunct professor of English and history at Union College.